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Originally published October 5, 2012 at 9:34 PM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 10:56 PM

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Sunny days, but winter weather not far away

Even though Seattle is on an exceptional sunny streak expected to last at least into next week, agencies in the Take Winter By Storm campaign say now is the time to start preparing for winter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Region's sunny autumn could give way to trouble

Build an emergency kit

Here's a partial list of essentials to get a family through at least three days without utilities. Separate kits should be prepared for the home, car and workplace.

Water: a gallon per person per day

Food: at least a three-day supply of nonperishables, and a manual can opener

Light: flashlights and extra batteries

Health: first-aid kit, supply of prescription medications

Warmth: thermal blankets and rain ponchos

Communication: a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, plus a NOAA weather radio

Insurance: copies of important documents

Links: For more winter-wise suggestions, see takewinterbystorm.org and seattletimes.com

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With blue skies overhead day after day — and no rain expected soon — it's hard to get people thinking about buying snow shovels.

Or rounding up rain ponchos. Or wrapping pipes so they don't freeze.

But what you do in the next few weeks could determine how well you and your family cope with the soggy season to come.

"Winter will come, and it's going to mean storms," said Scott Thomsen, Seattle City Light spokesman. "You are going to get rain, and lots of it, and you could get some snow and ice."

Thomsen is a coordinator of the Take Winter By Storm campaign, a four-county, public-private partnership spreading the word about how Puget Sound-area residents can prepare for harsh weather.

While climate experts are trying to get a handle on what this winter may deliver, they note that bad weather doesn't wait until the official start of winter, which this year comes at 3:12 a.m. Dec. 21.

In fact, Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the granddaddy of all windstorms here, the Columbus Day Storm of Oct. 12, 1962.

That storm brought gusts that topped 100 mph in some Western Washington cities and 160 mph on the Washington coast.

It killed some 50 people from Northern California to British Columbia, cut power to a million homes and damaged more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

Much more recently, the Hanukkah Eve Storm of December 2006 caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and cut power to 1.5 million customers.

It also triggered the worst epidemic of carbon-monoxide poisoning in the country's history. More than 300 people were sickened and eight died (of the storm's total of 15 fatalities) as families without electricity turned to other sources of power or heat, such as charcoal grills or gasoline-powered generators in their homes.

Among the afflicted were many immigrants, some from countries where houses are less weather-tight and operating a grill indoors isn't as dangerous.

More than any other single event, it was that storm that sparked the Take Winter By Storm campaign.

The phrase was used in the 1990s when area officials discussed annual efforts to work together on wintertime hazards. But since the 2006 storm, the effort has grown into a public-education campaign that now includes more than a dozen government agencies, utilities, business and other organizations in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties.

Some of the suggestions may seem basic: Don't go near downed power lines (they can electrocute you even if you don't touch them), while others are more detailed, such as a list of what to include in emergency kits people should have in homes, workplaces and vehicles.

Surveys taken over the past four years suggest the effort is helping.

Polling by Survey USA in the four-county area found that the number of people who carry extra clothing and blankets in their cars has risen from 43 to 57 percent, and the number who regularly rake leaves away from storm drains has gone from 40 to 49 percent.

But there's also plenty of room for improvement. More than 43 percent of the respondents still lack emergency kits in their homes.

How soon might you actually need those kits?

This year it's hard to say, as the approaching winter has been unwilling to tip its hand, making long-range predictions especially challenging.

For the past few months, warm water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean has indicated the likelihood of an El Niño winter, one in which the Northwest typically is warmer and drier than usual.

But in recent weeks, the indicators have weakened, pointing to what's considered a neutral condition.

A neutral outlook means a winter which, overall, may be about average in temperature and precipitation in Western Washington, but that's only part of the story.

Ted Buehner, warning coordinator for the National Weather Service's Seattle office, said those neutral winters are more likely to include Pineapple Express storms in which "a very warm river of moist air" gushes into the Northwest, with heavy rain and flooding.

Nick Bond, state climatologist, sees a "very much mixed message" about this winter.

His guarded outlook is for a season that's not likely to deliver heavier-than-usual flooding, a prolonged cold stretch or an exceptionally heavy snowpack.

Weather-blogger Cliff Mass, University of Washington meteorologist, also has been watching the changing outlook. "The bottom line is it's looking like a weak El Niño," Mass said. "We can't make any grand predictions, really."

Mass said the safest course is to be ready for anything. If conditions do slip from El Niño to neutral, he said, "anything can happen, even the big stuff."

With the first chance of rain forecast Friday, the sun is with us for now, and the next few days could reach into the upper 60s or lower 70s, courtesy of a high-pressure system anchored off the coast.

"It just won't budge," said Johnny Burg, weather-service meteorologist. "It's there until something comes along and moves it out."

That same high-pressure system hasn't been as kind to Alaska. It has diverted storms to the north, where they've triggered rains and flooding.

Juneau meteorologist Tom Ainsworth summed it up: "Your dry is our wet."

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